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In the name of the father: Rise of the game's Gen 2 stars

“Trust your own ability”.

That’s the advice former Test and Origin winger Rod Wishart gave his son, Tyran, as the Storm utility strived to become a second generation NRL star.

Having moved to Melbourne this season, Wishart is one of 40 NRL and NRLW players currently following in the footsteps of their fathers – including six at the Storm.

While the likes of Roosters halfback Sam Walker, Titans fullback Jayden Campbell and Broncos forward Kobe Hetherington established themselves last year, another batch of ‘son of guns’ are poised to break into the NRL ranks in coming seasons.

Among them are the sons of Mark Geyer, Matt Geyer, Kevin Iro, Martin Bella, Sean Garlick, Adam Dykes and Wishart, while Manly’s Zac Fulton is the grandson of rugby league Immortal, Bob Fulton.

Mavrik Geyer shows some great touches

There are also five daughters of former players in this weekend’s opening round of the Telstra NRL Women’s Premiership – Knights captain Romy Teitzel, team-mate Tahlulah Tillett, Broncos prop Millie Boyle, Titans forward Steph Hancock and Dragons lock Tegan Dymock.

“To me there is no doubt that it is not a fluke with all of these kids who come through whose fathers played is not a fluke, said Dolphins recruitment guru Peter O’Sullivan, whose son Sean plays for Penrith, and who has scouted some of the biggest names in the game during stints with the Storm, Roosters and Warriors.

“You’ve got Freddy’s young bloke [Zach Fittler] at the Roosters, and Isaac Luke’s son [Adaquix] is with us. Adaquix has been around his old man, playing touch football, and he has got some of the silkiest skills you could imagine for a young kid.”

How Freddy feels about watching his son play

The emergence of so many second, and even, third generation players - with Zac Fulton, Sharks fullback Kade Dykes and Bulldogs forward Max King also having grandfathers who played - gives rise to the age-old debate about nature versus nurture.

It has also sparked calls for the NRL to consider introducing some form of father-son rule similar to the AFL draft dispensation for players whose fathers played more than 100 matches for the same club – although few of the current crop would qualify.

“There has been a sprinkling of second-generation players throughout the last couple of years but there seems to be a pretty big influx this season,” said Fox Sports commentator and Panthers great Greg Alexander, whose son Braith plays in the club's Jersey Flegg side.

“They have just grown up with it as sons of fathers who are involved in the game and somehow it just seems a natural progression.”

'I over-achieved'

Storm GM of football, Frank Ponissi, insists the club’s recruitment is based on talent – not bloodlines – but being familiar with the father of a young prospect helps in the initial stages of identifying a player who will fit into the Melbourne system.

Sam Walker celebrates a try for the Roosters
Sam Walker celebrates a try for the Roosters ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

“If the father displays the characteristics of the Melbourne Storm football club that is usually pretty good,” Ponissi said.

“But it is no different to any player, in that you want to know a bit about his background and his family so probably early in the piece that becomes a factor but after that it really depends on the player himself – can he play and what type of character is he.”

Ponissi was on Bob Fulton’s coaching staff for the 1994 Kangaroo tour and the 1995 World Cup in England, while Wishart was a player.

As a winger, Wishart didn’t have the crisp passing skills of Tyran, who will start at hooker in Sunday's pre-season trial against the Knights, but many of his runs for the Steelers, Dragons, Blues and Kangaroos were from dummy half.

Wishart comes close

There are other traits common to father and son, too.

“I feel like I over-achieved and the reason I say that is because I know that there were some fellows who had more ability than me but one thing that I was good at was testing myself out and seeing what I was capable of doing,” Wishart said.

“I have always told our kids to ‘test yourself’ and ‘trust your own ability’. I have seen so many gifted sportspeople who don’t realise how much ability they have got. Sometimes you need a bit of courage to try new things and do new things during a game.

“I think Tyran does that and hopefully he gets to play to his potential.

“Tyran was always small so he had to be courageous at times, particularly to have a big bloke running at you and say ‘I don’t care. I am going to trust my own ability and technique to go in as hard as I can and knock him over’.”

Family connections

Wishart is one six players in this year's Storm squad whose fathers played at the elite level, while there are 29 others at rival clubs and five NRLW stars. They are:

  • Broncos: Millie Boyle (David), Billy Walters (Kevin), Kobe Hetherington (Jason), Zac Hosking (David);
  • Bulldogs: Kyle Flanagan (Shane), Jack Hetherington (Brett), Max King (David), Corey Waddell (Steve);
  • Cowboys: Ross Bella (Martin);
  • Dragons: Tegan Dymock (Jim);
  • Eels: Bailey Simonsson (Paul);
  • Knights: Jack Johns (Matt), Romy Teitzel (Craig), Tahlulah Tillett (Stephen);
  • Panthers: Isaah Yeo (Justin), Nathan Cleary (Ivan), Sean O'Sullivan (Peter), Mavrik Geyer (Mark);
  • Rabbitohs: Jed Cartwright (John);
  • Raiders: Albert Hopoate (John);
  • Roosters: Lachlan Lam (Adrian), Sam Walker (Ben);
  • Sea Eagles: Eiden Ackland (John), Morgan Boyle (David), Zac Fulton (Scott), Jamie Humphreys (Stephen);
  • Sharks: Kade Dykes (Adam), Kayal Iro (Kevin), Zac Woolford (Simon);
  • Storm: Bronson Garlick (Sean), Cole Geyer (Matt), Cooper Johns (Matt), Jonah Pezet (Troy), Reimis Smith (Tyran), Tyran Wishart (Rod);
  • Titans: Jayden Campbell (Preston); Steph Hancock (Rohan);
  • Warriors: Bayley Sironen (Paul), and;
  • Wests Tigers: Jackson Hastings (Kevin), Tommy Talau (Willie).
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“There has always been family connections in our game and it is the same in most sports," Ponissi said.

“In AFL they have got the father-son rule for drafting, so if your father played 100 games for a club, rather than enter the draft, you get drafted automatically to that club without going into the draft."

Fittler suggested a similar form of dispensation for NRL clubs, saying: "The game needs to see a little more loyalty".

However, if the AFL's 100-match criteria was applied, only Mavrik Geyer (Panthers), Cole Geyer (Storm), Lam (Roosters), Walters (Broncos), Campbell (Titans), Johns (Knights) and Dykes (Sharks) would be eligible.

Nature V nurture

O’Sullivan once told this reporter during an interview about Mitchell Pearce, the son of former Balmain, NSW and Australian captain Wayne Pearce, how he believed the environment a player grew up in was more significant to their development than genes.

Sean O'Sullivan saw how Smith, Slater and Cronk prepared at the Storm
Sean O'Sullivan saw how Smith, Slater and Cronk prepared at the Storm ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Citing the example of his own son, Sean, who would attend Storm training sessions and kick the ball around with the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, O’Sullivan said the current generation of players were better educated about the game.

“Full time footy came in in 1996 so I reckon a lot of those players whose sons are coming through now started playing full time around then and had more opportunity to take their kids to training,” he said.

“In the old days we went to work, we rushed to training, we went to the pub and then we went home to have our dinner at 10pm.

“These young prodigies have got their old man home at 3pm, so he can go to footy training with them, and they can go to big boys training.

“Without a doubt the sons have all got far better skill than their fathers did. 'Junior' [Pearce] could hardly pass a ball but Mitchell has got the best skill set I have seen.

"Paul Sironen was a big powerful athlete, but his sons [Curtis and Bayley] have got subtlety, skill and touch, and could you imagine Rod Wishart playing dummy half. He couldn’t pass wind.

Bayley Sironen is one of two sons of Balmain great Paul Sironen to play in the NRL
Bayley Sironen is one of two sons of Balmain great Paul Sironen to play in the NRL ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"Again I am sure that goes back to muscle memory, going to training and passing the ball in the backyard with dad."

Alexander said the level of coaching and training methods had also improved.

“Kids in the under 13s train more than I did when I was playing first grade, so that is the difference," he said.

“Most of them have come through pathways and they are taken under a club’s wing by the time they are 13, whereas we were really just doing our best as kids.

“I think back in the 1970s and 1980s kids were coached but not specifically for the skills that are required. It was a lot of fitness and it was just like backyard footy because there was no structure.

“You would kick the ball around the park in the afternoon, but you didn’t do any specific kicking so it is the coaching that has changed dramatically if you are talking about the kids whose fathers played.”

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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